At the turn of last century, some young Muslim men in northern Kerala made a radical departure from the norms to make movies that could be watched at home on video cassettes and DVDs. In Malabar, which has a sizeable Muslim population, cinema was considered haram (forbidden). The new home cinema appealed to the faithful through its meaningful messages of love and compassion for fellow human beings to earn the tag of halal (permissible).
As a teenager, Zakariya Mohammed sat with his parents and siblings in their village home in Malappuram to watch such home cinema productions as Ningalenne Branthanaaki (You Made Me a Madman) and Parethan Thirichu Varunnu (The Deceased Returns). A decade-and-half later, his sophomore feature Halal Love Story draws its influence from the family debates that would follow the movies.
Halal Love Story, released on Amazon on October 15— the day when cinemas were allowed to open at half their capacity—tells the story of Malabar's home-cinema movement nearly two decades ago. The movement in Malabar, an instant hit with the region's conventional Muslim families, had a deep impact on Zakariya, then a Class 12 student. He believed that the stories narrated on the small screen were his own and felt close to cinema.
Produced two years after his box office hit Sudani from Nigeria, which won him many national and state awards, the new film, too, benefits from the director's sensibilities as a village boy from Malabar who sees art as natural and sustainable. "We don't see art or religion from the point of view of what is permissible and what is forbidden," says the diminutive director. "We want to convey from our understanding."
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That understanding spans art, religion, social issues like women equality and dowry, the fight against capitalism and globalisation routinely witnessed in Malabar and even sport, mainly football. Growing up, he didn't understand many of these issues but they stayed with him. He swears by an artist's honesty. "When we create a character, it is done with honesty. As a filmmaker I like blending socially relevant stories and characters," he adds.
Zakariya Mohammed's Halal Love Story is about the history of Malabar's home-cinema movement that began at the turn of the last century.
Honesty, friendship and the beauty and piety of a province. Pookkattari, Zakariya's native village near Valanchery town in Malappuram, boasts of artists, poets, theatre actors and songwriters. The famous thayambaka (a percussion performance in Kerala) player Divakara Poduval was a son of the soil. "Everybody sits around and plans the cultural events at the village school and club," says the filmmaker, whose friends in Malappuram and Kozhikode are always part of his film projects.
Halal Love Story features some of the actors of Malabar's home cinema. The unassuming director's natural inclination to camaraderie also drew partners like Samir Thahir (Bangalore Days) and Shyju Khalid (Traffic), both successful cinematographers and directors, to the newcomer for producing Sudani From Nigeria.
"Zakariya is a simple person. I remember him coming to our town's film club to show one of his short films early in his career," says Malappuram resident Abdul Latheef, a designer and video editor with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. "He is a talented filmmaker and an interesting person who brings subtlety to the screen through his portrayal of local stories of Malabar," says Malayalam director Sajin Babu, whose last film Biriyaani won awards at Moscow, Madrid and Rome festivals and state honours.
"I made my first film, a short, in 2002," says Zakariya, who joined the environmental campaign against the Coca-Cola plant in neighbouring Palakkad district and anti-globalisation protests as a school student and member of the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (Zakariya boycotted the 2019 National Film Awards ceremony in protest against Citizens Amendment Bill). Though they didn't receive any official backing of Jamaat-e-Islami, many people who were part of Malabar's home cinema then were members of the Muslim organisation. Soon, Zakariya would find himself in street theatre, a powerful medium of protest then in Kerala.
Silence Please, Zakariya's first short film, is relevant even today. Adapted from a half-an-hour street play, Silence Please is about a man who goes around with a lens looking for a virus. While still in school, he wrote, directed and acted in plays. In college, he promptly became a volunteer for the National Service Scheme, once again staging street plays as an under-graduate.
The journey from theatre to cinema was a natural extension for the young Zakariya. He applied to the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Zakariya's name was not on the list of successful candidates to the Jamia centre, one of the top media schools in the country and alma mater of several well known filmmakers.
"I was hugely disappointed," says Zakariya, who went on to study a Master's programme in mass communication at the Safi Institute of Advanced Studies in Kozhikode, an hour-and-half bus ride from his village in Malappuram. It helped that film was a big subject at the institute. He directed his diploma film, Revolve, reflecting two eras of journalism—one about a journalist's arrest during the Emergency and the other about a journalism student running into trouble with the establishment after his research into that arrest irks the state.
Revolve won a Special Jury award in the campus category at the prestigious International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, organised by the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, in 2010. Like many of his fellow Keralites, Zakariya, too, went to the Middle East, working as an assistant director in an Omani film, Aseel, which had most of the crew from Kerala recruited by its creative director Sudha Radhika.
Back from the Gulf, he became assistant director in the 2013 Malayalam film Hangover. "Few people know it, but I taught TV production at a media school," says Zakariya about his two-year stint as a teacher at the MediaOne Academy of Communication in Kozhikode after his return from Oman.
He also began, in what would turn out to be a long collaboration, with his Halal Love Story and Sudani From Nigeria co-writer Muhsin Parari, becoming his assistant director for two music videos and Parari's debut feature film KL 10 Patthu (2015). One of the music videos was called Native Bapa (2012), featuring Malayalam actor Mamukkoya. His decade-long work with Parari, also a Malappuram native, is going strong. Both are planning to partner for two more feature films.
Zakariya, who was influenced by many Malayalam films, notably the works of KG George who directed path-breaking films like Yavanika (1982) and Adaminte Vaariyellu (1983), wants to continue learning. "I want to go to a film school abroad, learn about the masters and maybe pursue a course in documentary filmmaking." With such wondrous history of movies, Malabar will feel at home wherever Zakariya goes in the world. (Faizal Khan curated India’s first football films festival with artist Riyas Komu at the 2011 International Film Festival of India, Goa. He was the curator of a football films programme in the Artists Cinema section of the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014.)